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Posts Tagged ‘Montclair District’

Woodminster: South Pacific, Day Six — The Old Firehouse

In Fiction, Theatre, Writing on August 22, 2017 at 11:52 am

(Your confusion has a cure! Start here.)

Day Six, The Old Firehouse: Sunday, 23 July 2017

Fire has a way of finding you.

After the 1906 earthquake, there was a lot of rapid real estate development in North Berkeley. Some of those homes are still there. But not many. Because by 1923 the development had outgrown the water supply, and when a fire started in the dry grass and chaparral of Wildcat Canyon just east of Berkeley, the water mains were not up to the task of keeping it at bay. Dry and gusty northeasterly winds — the Diablo Winds — blew the fire up over the ridge and into the neighborhoods of La Loma Park and Northside. The Berkeley Fire Department found that the hydrants in that area only hissed their emptiness, and 640 structures – most of them homes – went up in possibly the first firestorm to devastate the area in recorded history.

The second – and far worse – firestorm was in 1991. I worked at the Lake Merritt Hotel at the time. By night, from the roof of the hotel, the hills above Oakland and Berkeley were a wall of fire. It looked like it was a mile away. I was standing there next to my brother, Rob, who had gotten me the job of Houseman at the hotel. (A Houseman – at least at the Lake Merritt Hotel in 1991 – is a Bellhop who cleans toilets. Or a janitor in a nice shirt who carries bags.) Rob told me that the fire’s apparent proximity was an illusion – it was still about seven miles away. According to my calculations (Google), he was correct: it’s 6.5 miles from the Lake Merritt Hotel to the neighborhoods behind the Claremont Hotel. And it was in those neighborhoods that our noble firefighters made their last stand, valiantly fighting back the hellfire breath of the Diablo Winds, saving the Claremont and – in all likelihood – much of the rest of Berkeley.

Skipping back to 1923, there are newsreels and photographs of entire neighborhoods in the smoking aftermath: chimneys and fireplaces stand like gravestones, mute sentinels broadcasting their ironic survival – while those occupants whose hands these fireplaces  once warmed in winter may well have added their own unwitting ashes to the surrounding devastation.

After the fire in 1991, driving the neighborhoods near my grandparents’ house on Proctor Avenue in the Oakland hills, I saw the same thing: a cemetery of chimneys. How many times must fires devastate these hills before adequate precautions are the norm? Certainly this question echos many voices from the time, but I’m delighted to say that my grandparents’ voices were not among them – their house was saved. This happened because of a firefighter who chose to disobey orders, staying with his team and truck to save this one house – which had caught fire near …

… wait for it …

… the chimney.

The last name of the fireman who saved their house: Burns. I kid you not.

As a result of the 1923 fire, Eldred E. Edwards of the Oakland Public Works Department designed a storybook masterpiece of a firehouse for the Montclair District. It was built on Moraga Avenue in 1927 and served the Montclair District for over 60 years – until it was closed in the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Not because it was damaged in any way, but because it sits on or very close to the Hayward Fault – a fault which did not move in the quake that caused the firehouse to be shuttered. (It should be noted that the Loma Prieta quake also got a lot of attention for snapping the Bay Bridge in half, but got no attention whatsoever for leveling much of Watsonville and Santa Cruz.)

Standing just north of the Old Firehouse on Moraga Avenue, I was deeply saddened by its state of disrepair. That the City of Oakland would allow this architectural masterpiece to fall apart simply because it sits on the Hayward Fault makes me wonder what they will choose to save instead. Because it is a choice. And history is important. Highway 13 also sits on the Hayward Fault – it goes right past the Old Firehouse. They’re upgrading 13 as I write this. It’s just a road. It’s not a masterpiece. Sure, more people use it. But how many people “use” the paintings hanging in the de Young? Their only “use” is the artists’ expression of … whatever. And would anyone go anywhere near those paintings if they were left to the mercies of the elements on Moraga Avenue? Probably not. Hence the protection and restoration of great art and architecture.

Gazing at the sad building with its jolly flames at the peaks of the roofs, I was struck by the feeling that this building is also a temple, like Woodminster. It’s a temple of protection, a municipal temple where locals tithed through taxes to keep the breath of Diablo at bay. And the same could be said of any firehouse. But this one feels different. It feels special. These thoughts lead me to the following observation: between 1923 and 1991, there were no devastating fires in the Berkeley or Oakland hills. There were a couple in the 70’s and 80’s that started right around where the 1991 fire started – but they were contained in time. Only after this Old Firehouse was shut down did the Diablo Winds blow sparks to a storm of devastation again. I believe that if Montclair is to stay protected, the Old Firehouse must be restored.

If I had the money, I’d buy and restore it myself.

With that thought in mind, I bounced up street, meaning to head right up the front steps and circle the building. As I approached, I noticed that a car was parked very close to the front of the building – right in front of the firetruck garage door – three words that sound best when said in the voice of a four-year old boy. It was, if I’m not mistaken, a 1968 Citroen DS21 Pallas III. Maroon. Leather seats. A car worth getting arrested for licking.

I moved in for a closer inspection – and a possible tasting – when nearby voices distracted me.

“He shouldn’t be looking around at all, Bill!” This voice sounded familiar. Older, gravelly, female.

“It was just one poem, Louella – ” Could that be … Weedbeard? Who the hell was Louella, and why did I recognize her voice?

It sounded like they were coming down the weathered stone steps on the other side of the Old Firehouse. I hopped up the front steps, leaning back in the shade under the overgrown cypress tree.

Louella appeared – it was Aughra! She of the Very Confusing Anagram Suggestion. Weedbeard followed, slouching like a kid caught smoking weed next to the propane tank.

“Do you remember what happened last time, Bill?” Louella was near shouting, short but mighty. “The girl in the show? Her eyes, Bill. Remember her fucking eyes the next time you think about leaving clues in anyone’s coffee!”

Bill Weedbeard was fiddling with something in his right hand. His fingers were all black; it looked like a burned stick. “I just thought that maybe someone else should know about the danger before we’re all gone,” he said.

“How the almighty fuck did he find out about the Historical Society to begin with, Bill? Loose lips sink ships. We need to circle the wagons or get the hell out of Dodge!” Louella stumped around to the driver’s side of the car. “Get in, I don’t want to risk you leaving any more messages,” she said.

Bill Weedbeard dropped the stick as he opened the passenger door, saying, “Will we really be back in ten minutes?”

Five, Bill. I said five. What is wrong with you – too many blood thinners, or not enough?” Louella said.

Bill Weedbeard took out a handkerchief to wipe his fingers, and I could swear he looked right at me, winking and pointing at the stick as they drove away. When they were gone, I went down to the curb and picked up the stick.

It looked like hardwood charcoal. I sniffed it. Possibly mesquite.

What did she mean about leaving more messages?

I sprinted up the steps, turning on the flashlight on my phone the better to scan the side of the building, the front door, then ran around the back and down the other side. There wasn’t a card or note anywhere. I saw a piece of white paper sticking out of a shrub. It was an old receipt, unrelated and useless.

My fingers, black from the stick, left dark smudges on the paper.

messages … did he write messages in charcoal?

I ran up the front steps and stopped before getting halfway. There was something scrawled back down on the sidewalk to the left of the stairs. I returned to see three words, half covered by dry oak leaves; the leaves were old, the writing was new:

was my purpose

What the fuck does that mean? And why did he point at the stick?

they’ll be back in five minutes …

I wrote the phrase in my notebook and took a picture of it just in case, then did one final circuit of the Old Firehouse. Nothing.

I headed off to find a solid brunch and do some thinking, then run my lines for rehearsal.

As I was finishing my brunch, I wrote this in my notebook: Fire has a mind of its own, and fire has a way of finding you. But what of the Firehouse? Did I find it, or did it call to me, like Bali Ha’i? If I continue down this path, will I get burned? Or will I find enlightenment?

When the check came, I was thinking about another storybook house I fell in love with back in 1991, a house that burned in the fire. I lifted the check off the little plastic tray, and beneath was a note that read:

Beware the fog. Beware the night. She is coming for you.

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Woodminster: South Pacific, Day Six — Shepherd Canyon

In Fiction, Theatre, Writing on August 20, 2017 at 12:06 pm

(Don’t get burned by spoilers! Start here.)

Day Six, Shepherd Canyon: Sunday, 23 July 2017

Fire has a mind of its own.

I headed out to Montclair early today, arriving around 9:00 am, heading to the fire station whose location I knew offhand: Oak Fire Station No. 24, on Shepherd Canyon Road. Why do I know where this specific fire station is? Simple: I like winding roads, and in my early 20’s, I liked to drive on them at dangerous speeds, blasting the James Bond theme on the stereo.

My friend Scott and I thought we were writing a musical. We were meeting Elsa, Scott’s girlfriend, for dinner at her sister’s house in Montclair that evening. This was … 1993? 1994? Anyway, I decided it would be fun to drive Scott up Shepherd Canyon Road at about 80 mph, blasting a special driving mix tape on the stereo: James Bond, Peter Gunn, Mission Impossible and … the Overture from Candide. One of these things is not like the others …

Scott was not at all certain that this was a good idea, but – galvanized with the armor of youthful ignorance – I rocketed up the canyon in my sister’s blue Saturn. Because of course, the best way to risk life, limb and property is in a borrowed car.

It was as we were coming back down Shepherd Canyon toward Snake road, in the last long curve to the right, that the car began to run up onto the embankment. I think we were doing 85 mph. Scott raked the air with his hands, right-left-right-left, like a cat; mouth agape, teeth bared, a grotesque sculpture: silent, the intensity of his hands increasing as we edged up toward certain doom. The car antenna whipped weeds off the embankment above us.

Sirens and the blaring horn of a firetruck: there, ahead of us, Fire Station No. 24 was being called to action.

I was not certain we could stop in time.

Woodminster: South Pacific, Day Five

In Fiction, Theatre, Writing on August 17, 2017 at 5:04 pm

(Spoiler alert! If you prefer a fresh approach, start here.)

Day Five: Saturday, 22 July 2017

I was late to rehearsal.

Which is rare. It has no bearing on what follows, but I feel I should touch upon it in the interest of forthright documentarian whatsiwhosies: fact is, I was a total fuck-up in my early theatre days, always late and unprepared. Then, in college, one of my professors said, “You will notice that actors who are consistently late have no grasp of reality.” (Those of you who attended The Boston Conservatory will recognize the words and tone of Steve McConnell, the man who deserves the most – and wants the least – credit for the actor I am today.) I looked around the room at the people who were always late, realizing that I did not want to be counted among that group. I began to change this habit, and have learned – owing to my tendency to procrastinate – that the only way to be certain I’m on time is to always be at least one hour early. (Ladies, for the record, I’m never early in … shall we say … intimate situations. If you take my meaning. Ahem. Le wink. Flip and flutter of the fan. Bat-bat-bat of my manly eyelashes. Also, sex.)

We finished blocking Act I, then ran it. I was off book here and there. We were released at 5 pm.

It was nice to be off early, so I decided to scope out the Historical Society. Get the lay of the land in the light of day, before I go to the mysterious meeting dictated by the card I found in my pocket last night:

Montclair Historical Society.
Monday, 3 pm.
Come alone.

So I went out to my car – always parked in the same spot because of internet access; my phone gets no service in the theatre unless I’m on the roof or in the middle of the breezeway over the fountains. So I did a search for the location of the Montclair Historical Society. I sat there searching for maybe forty-five minutes, frustration increasing by the second. Because unless I want to drive to Montclair, New Jersey, I’m out of luck: there is no Montclair Historical Society in the Montclair District of Oakland, CA.

I headed down to Peet’s to ask an old, wealthy hippie. That is to say, a local.

I found a group of them sitting on the bench outside Peet’s: beards and long hair, four guys and a woman in their seventies looking like denim-clad variations on Obi-Wan Kenobi or Aughra.

“Excuse me, gentlemen and lady. I’m wondering if any of you know where I can find the Montclair Historical Society,” I said.

The one who looked more like Gandalf said, “Montclair, New Jersey.”

The rest of them chuckled. Aughra grunted.

Pulling the card from my wallet, I said, “This note was left for me. Any thoughts?”

The one who looked more like Obi-Wan said, “Good Lord – ”

“That’s probably a Parker 51 Special,” said the Gandalfy fellow, with a large silencing glance at Obi-Wan-point-five.

“I would have said Montblanc Meisterstück 136, 1938,” said the guy who looked like Treebeard’s more stoned brother. Weedbeard.

“You always think it’s a Montblanc Meisterstück 136, 1938, Bill,” said Dumbledore.

“You’re obsessed,” said Obi-Wan-point-five.

“So what if I am?” said Bill Weedbeard. “I’ve been searching for the Montblanc Meisterstück 136, 1938 for 40 years.”

“I think there’s one on E-Bay,” said Gandalf.

“It doesn’t have any value if I pay full price,” said Bill Weedbeard.

“I have to agree,” I said. “The delight of a find in a thrift store far outweighs anything I could purchase for full price.”

“Damn right!” said Bill Weedbeard. “I’m buying your coffee, young gallant. How do you take it?”

“Small, black, no room, thank you kindly,” I said.

To think I’ve walked by these guys for three summers and never stopped to talk before now.

Aughra had not yet spoken. She’d been sipping her coffee, frowning into the middle distance. Mayhaps brooding on revenges or ruminating on ingredients for potions. Vengeful potions. Vengeful, brooding potions.

“It’s an anagram,” she said, then heaved herself off the bench and stumped away down the street.

The old wizards stared after her.

“More words than she’s said in three weeks,” Obi-Wan-point-five said to the group.

Then, to me, Gandalf said, “I’d take it to heart if I were you.”

Bill Weedbeard returned with a large black coffee, no room, handing it to me with a crisp military salute, which I returned out of rehearsal habit.

Why is he saluting me? I’m not military, we’re not in uniform, does he know about the show? Social status alone would dictate that I salute him. Also, Billis is just a Seabee. So even if he does know, it doesn’t make sense.

All of the above went through my head in an instant. Obi-Wan-point-five was saying, “Well, it’s about that time.”

They all shook hands, then they shook my hand. Bill Weedbeard was the last.

“Enjoy that coffee,” he said, smiling. His eyes said, Enjoy it here, in Montclair.

They departed in separate directions. I went into Peet’s and sat with my notebook, making notes on what has happened so far, trying to pull anagrams out of Montclair Historical Society.

The first ones I did were just for Montclair; these were the most interesting:
Clam Nitro – interesting because of exploding clams.
Carol Mint – interesting because my Mom grew up very close to Montclair, and her name is Carol.
Talc Minor – interesting because Highway 13 is the Hayward Fault, and the fault is in Serpentine, a rock that when subjected to heat and friction becomes talc, which is also asbestos, which is why we don’t go into the basement at Woodminster. And when it finally moves, it will not be minor.
Actor Limn – that which highlights the actor.
Normal Tic – is there any such thing?
Cram In Lot – funny because after the 1991 fire, people who rebuilt tried to fit as much house as they could into the tiniest of lots.
Lam Tic Nor – just sounds fun to shout in a Scottish dialect. This applies to every anagram of Montclair, truth be told.
Ram Colt In – because it carries a sexual connotation I find inappropriately amusing.
Can It Lo Mr – because this seems like the best response to the last one.

Could any of these be the first part of a clue?

The anagrams for Historical Society are weirder; here are a few of the less nutty:
Chocolatey Iris Tis
Calico Shittier Soy
Socialistic Rye Tho
Achier Colitis Toys

I’m not sure I want to solve the mystery these might illuminate.

I started putting the weirdest ones together, they make for some disturbing images:
Talc Minor Theocratic Oily Sis – a polygamist initiation ritual?
Lam Tic Nor Ascetic History Oil – effete Scottish scholars avoiding Lyme Disease.
Can It Lo Mr Thoracic Yeti Soils – your Chiropractor doesn’t like Abominable Snowman poop.
Ram Colt In Achiest Clitoris Yo – seek medical attention immediately.
Normal Tic Socialise Itchy Rot – you should have sought medical attention when you had the achiest clitoris.
Cram In Lot Erotica Cosily Shit – there’s a hidden German porn enclave in Montclair.

I gave up on the anagrams and finished my coffee. Something tapped the inside of the lid of my disposable cup. I opened it. A tiny ziploc bag fell out. The kind one sees crack dealers offering on gritty crime dramas. Grimacing at the notion of icky, I picked it up.

There was a piece of paper inside. I unfolded it. Printed in neat, near-architectural letters was the following:

We do not seek the jaunting grouse
We do not taunt the dragon’s ire
Instead we joust the dragon’s heart
Before we light a jaunty fire
While there it roasts we raise a glass
Before the rains our flames can douse
If storms do blow we build a pyre
Inside our vintage

It ended there, nothing was written on the back. I looked in the cup again. Nothing beyond the final drips of Major Dickason. (You’re welcome.)

Inside their vintage … what? Wine barrels? Cars? Fountain pens?

I stared at it for a while, then headed for my car, and home. Food and comfort can unlock the brain.

In the middle of the night I sat bolt upright and wrote something on the notepad I keep on my bedside table, then fell back asleep. I completely forgot about it until I glanced at my notebook while making the bed Sunday morning. There, scrawled diagonally across the page was one word:

Firehouse.

Woodminster: South Pacific, Day Three

In Theatre, Writing on August 10, 2017 at 11:52 am

(If you are confused, start here.)

Day Three: Thursday, 20 July 2017

When I returned to Woodminster from the Trevarno District of Livermore, Admiral Judy called me into her office. It’s just off the main office backstage, near the stage door. She said, “Here’s your paycheck, Ed. Don’t lose it on the slippery slope of curiosity.” She waved her hand in the general direction of stage left, the men’s dressing room … and the slope. Her eyes came to rest, I remember, on an old newspaper clipping pinned to the bulletin board behind me.

“Some people like to look for mysteries where there are none, Ed. When they do, they write conversations that never happened. Look: this conversation, right now, never happened. You’re making it up. And that’s exactly what I’ll tell anyone who asks. You’re a talented writer. Not an investigative reporter. Go. No. Further.” With each of those last three words, Judy thumped her index finger on the yellowed, faded article. Then she stared at me, silent, for a full ten seconds before leaving the office.

I took a picture; the article is transcribed below:

July 6, 1952
Montclair, CA

Local Girls Missing
by Ginger Trancas

A missing persons report has been filed for Louise Archer and Bess Tremaine, both Sophomores at Piedmont High. They were last seen on Castle Drive in Montclair on the evening of July 4, wearing shorts and sneakers and matching blue gingham tops. Anyone with information should call Officer Bill Whiting with the Piedmont Police Detectives [faded to a smudge here]

It is not known at this time whether sightings of a lone figure among the trees of Joaquin Miller Park are in any way related to the girls’ disappearance. Most residents in the neighborhood attribute these sightings to high school pranksters, but local florist Betsy Hillebrandt tells another story. “I saw it clear as day,” says Hillebrandt. “I was gathering eucalyptus for my arrangements. [faded into a smudge here, too] about fifteen yards away from me. Just watching. Gave me the chills.” When asked what it looked like, the flighty florist fumbles. “Well, it was tall,” she says. “Its face looked pale, but I couldn’t see clearly. It was almost dark. But it was holding some[faded, smudged]

“Nothing to be concerned about,” says Officer Whiting. “Mysterious figures in the trees could be shadows, could be hobos. There’s no definitive proof that the girls went anywhere near any ‘mysterious [faded, smudged] saw what Mrs. Hillebrandt describes, wouldn’t they just run away and holler at the top of their lungs?”

That’s one thing everybody who lives near the park can agree upon: for the first time in years, Joaquin Miller Park was silent on the 4th of July. “Not a single firecracker,” says Ed Proust, whose backyard is separated from the park by a low picket fence. First time I haven’t [smudged] hose ready for a fire in a decade. If those girls were screaming in there, we’d have heard them.”

“The girls could be at a friend’s house, and they both have cousins in Reno. There’s no knowing what they might get up to,” says Officer Whiting. “Speculation only fans the flames. We expect them home any time now.”

For the sake of the friends and families of Louise Archer and Bess Tremaine, we hope it’s sooner than later.

Setting aside the rampant editorializing and somewhat egregious alliteration, it was an informative article. A little too informative, in fact. I began to suspect I was being pranked. So convenient, this article — just sitting there, coincidentally tacked to the bulletin board in her office. I went in search of Judy, but every time I got close to her, she was called – or simply went – away.

Call me paranoid. I started watching everyone very closely. Did I see a hint of mischief behind Linnea’s smile? Was Joel intentionally not looking in my direction because he might laugh if we made eye contact? Was Johann laughing at me, or at something Bryan said? That seems unlikely – Bryan’s what we call, “destined for hammers.”

Retreating into my work, I doubled down on memorization. We ran what we’d staged, then continued staging the show to just after I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair – the only song in the R&H canon dedicated to cum.

I allowed my questions about the figure, the doll – and now, the disappearing girls – to be subsumed by the need to master my lines. By the end of the night, I’d concluded that it was all an ornate hazing ritual. This is my third year at Woodminster, perhaps this is how they test us at the end of a probationary period. Frankly, that’s what I would do if I had a theatre company. Which is why it’s probably better that I don’t.

With a lighter heart and a far less suspicious cloud hovering at the edges of my vision, I left rehearsal that night determined to get them all back. Something really clever, but simple. I chatted with Amanda for a bit before getting into my car, then sat listening to NPR and waiting for my phone to recharge enough to listen to Aaron Mahnke’s LORE podcast on the way home.

Charging my dead phone to 5% takes about five minutes. Someone back at the stage door was laughing. Occasional cars would pass my spot – the last on the right in the lower lot, if you’re looking at the lot from the stage door – as the remaining actors and staff went home. The laughter at the stage door continued intermittently – like someone was going, “Ha-Aa! Aaaaaahhhh,” every thirty seconds or so.

I saw the lights turn off, and Judy left about one minute afterward. My phone was at 4%.

There were still people laughing back at the stage door, so I decided I’d drive over there in a second to mock them for their late-night caterwauling. There was a pause on the radio, and in that silence, the laughter came again.

It sounded wrong. Like someone in pain.

I glanced back through the hatchback on my Prius, but the glass is tinted – it’s hard to see details that far away.

I rolled down both front windows to see my driver and passenger rear view mirrors better, putting the car in reverse, which starts it beeping. The radio was still on.

The laughter was much closer to my car now.

I turned the radio down, put the car in drive to stop the beeping, and turned to look back at the stage door, rolling down my back windows, too. I could see the stage door clearly now.

It was locked. There was nobody over there.

From the trees on the dark slope in front of my car came, “Ma-ma! Ma-MA! Ahhhahhhhhhhghhhhhssssss …”

I froze. I didn’t want to look.

“Ma-MA! Ma-MA! Ahhhahhaaahhhhhghlllllhhhhssssss …”

It was louder.

Closer.

I turned front.

It stood in the shadows, just down the slope from the front of my car, baby doll held out into the glow of the streetlights, tilting side to side.

My windows are down.

It took a step forward. More of its arm was exposed. Pale white flesh. I did not turn my headlights on. I didn’t want to see.

Throwing the car into reverse, I tried to speed backward. My emergency brake was still on. I slammed my foot into it – unlocking and re-locking the brake three times before it released.

Another step forward.

I zipped backward, braking to avoid slamming into the curb separating the lot from the slope. The figure turned toward me.

I tried to roll up the windows. They wouldn’t move. I looked at the control panel. I’d engaged the driver lock. In my car, it stops even me from rolling the windows up or down. Also, the cruise control has stopped working. Unrelated. Moving on:

I’d like to say I tossed a few witty bon mots before I got the windows up. Something like, “How’s this for a glass ceiling?” Or, “You know what they say, when the Lord closes a window …” Too wordy. Maybe, “Glass half full me once, shame on you!” Or maybe, “Listen, Precious, I don’t have the ring.

What I think I said was, “Holy fuck FUCK! Get the fuck, get the FUCK, GET THE FUCK –”

Giving up on the windows, I threw the car into drive and hit the gas, slamming into every pothole on the road out. I think Oakland Parks and Rec is aiming for a record. There are more holes in that road than in my plots. And that’s saying something.

I remembered to turn on my headlights as I was passing the Ranger Station at the top of the hill. I wondered if the rangers know anything about Dolly Lurker. Regardless, I didn’t get much sleep that night, my thoughts returning to the same image for hours:

I could be wrong. It was dark. I never turned on my headlights while it was in front of me.

I thought the figure was wearing blue gingham.